Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is filling a bottle terrarium for his paintings.
"We're going to be looking at some of the greatest art ever painted, and the greatest painters."—Waldemar Januszczak
I won't necessarily agree that today's viewer has a short attention span; if you review an older, pre-nineties drama series, you can't help noticing how many season-long and longer plotlines aren't there. However, someone in TV land undoubtedly thinks you need a little boost to get into something like Understanding Art: Impressionism. It entertains as it introduces viewers to the artists of a booming Paris.
Facts of the Case
Understanding Art: Impressionism includes three documentaries, an overview of impressionism and longer bonus pieces on two artists, Édouard Manet and Vincent Van Gogh:
The Impressionists: Painting & Revolution
• "The Gang of Four"—Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Claude Monet, and Frederick Bazile get together to put on their own art shows. Januszczak discusses paint tubes and ferrules and the growth of Paris.
• "The Great Outdoors"—Monet's fascination with the Seine and Renoir's "secular Sundays" are discussed, along with the idea behind the artist's smock and a demonstration of light on snow.
• "Painting the People"—Edgar Degas deals with motion, paints opera and ballet scenes, and, oh yes, turns to "reinventing the nude." Paul Gauguin tanks as a tarpaulin salesman and paints his impressions of a cold Danish landscape.
• "The Final Flourish"—George Seurat becomes "king of the dots," which Januszczak links to retinal memory. Vincent Van Gogh turns up, concentrating on gloomy Paris cityscapes with "rickety windmills." Monet winds up his career by putting in his own garden and dealing with cataracts.
Manet: The Man who Invented Modern Art—"He moved the goalposts and rewrote the rules," Januszczak says of the "mysterious and enigmatic" Edouard Manet. Manet may or may not have fathered young Leon, who appears in some of his paintings. He also had a knack for bringing observers into the picture when painting nudes, including "Luncheon on the Grass" and "Olympia."
Vincent: The Full Story
Waldemar Januszczak, art critic for the Sunday Times of London, works hard to impress his TV audience with the impressionists. He's not above a few stunts. True, bringing along a pig and weasel to show off their suitability as future brushes might rub you the wrong way. There's also a demonstration of how the dots link to retinal memory that wasn't quite working in my case (I see the rectangular shape he used in the demonstration, just not green, as he says it will be). However, most of his goofy tricks do make their points. Throughout the documentaries, you'll also see recreations of scenes depicted in the paintings of the impressionists and friends, making sure there's something visual in just about every scene to augment Januszczak's discussion.
The discussion in The Impressionists: Painting & Revolution is mostly about the concepts involved in art. When Januszczak does programs on specific artists, he goes into great detail on the meaning of their works. In either case, he's opinionated, and he expresses those opinions in terms that a layman who's been to a couple of museums can understand.
Production values on the recent series are strong, although much of it is simple, just Januszczak talking with something going on in the background. Athena
A booklet with the DVDs has more information, including all the spellings of names (including ferrule) that anyone studying the impressionists might want.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Understanding Art: Impressionism isn't for young viewers. Some of those recreated scenes from paintings involve female nudity, and there's lots of talk of sex in the bios of the artists.
When you're done, you'll realize that a Waldemar Januszczak documentary is almost all Januszczak. You've listened to one person talking for hours—and it wasn't dull. You might even become fascinated by paintings of empty chairs, one of Van Gogh's favorite subjects.
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